To realize Epic Stuff, Daniel Szabo, CEO of Körber Digital, first imagines how it would ideally work – in a greenfield environment, so to speak. Then it’ s time to tackle the task together and get started. The focus is always on the matter at hand, the big goal that leaders want to empower their teams for. Hierarchy topics become secondary.
Demonstrate the commitment you expect from others. As Daniel Szabo, the CEO of Körber Digital, does. In my opinion, Daniel is just the right mix: strategic, analytical and creative on the one hand – and on the other hand someone who says about himself that “Getting shit done” is his motto. I look forward to talking to Daniel about the topic of this chapter.
When I meet Daniel Szabo in Berlin, he has just become CEO of the youngest division within the Körber Group: Körber Digital. Daniel’s new office is located in Berlin-Mitte, bordering the Kreuzberg district and just a stone’s throw away from the almost legendary “betahaus”, a hotspot of the start-up scene. In the rooms of Körber Digital it looks more like a start-up than a corporation, too: There are Post-its everywhere. If a meeting room is available or taken, the only note will be a Post-it on the door. And it works! My favorite meeting room here is called “gym” and looks almost like one, too, including a punching ball and boxing gloves on the wall. While we sip delicious espressos from a semi-automatic espresso machine, Daniel and I start our conversation. Daniel joined a DAX-30 corporation with a dual degree in economics and business administration and after spending time abroad, including in China, Mexico, and Singapore. He started working in the strategy department of a business field and, after only two years, was leading the company while he was still very young. Then he managed large deals and mergers and subsequently became responsible for the issue of innovation through the transformation that was involved. Before he finally helped to establish the digitization unit of the group, he had already spent a lot of time dealing with start-up methods.
I already mentioned that Daniel is not only a strategist but also a man of action and an implementer. Pretty much the most epic proof of this is in my view that, in spite of his full-time job in the corporate world, he pulled up the start-up YOU MAWO – together with three other partners. The young company not only received many innovation awards but even became world market leader in its segment after only a few years. I want to start our conversation with that story – and then I would like to know to what extent Daniel’s experiences with establishing his own company correspond to those in the corporate world. So first: What kind of company is YOU MAWO – and how come a world market leader was founded in their spare time?
“The idea came to me and three friends of mine on a beach in Thailand on one of our backpacking trips,” Daniel says. “But first things first: YOU MAWO produces custom-made 3D-printed glasses. They are distributed as a high-priced premium product via the classic stationary channels of the industry. We invested only € 45,000 in the early days and have been living on cash flow ever since. After a little more than three years, we were the world leader in 3d-printed custom-made glasses and therefore a bit of a unicorn in the premium eyewear industry.” As far as I know the story, it had all been decided on the beach in Thailand, hadn’t it? “No, not at all. There was only this idea we had come up with. At that time, crucial patents had expired. Our question at that time on the beach was: Shouldn’t we do something? I had been thinking about the eyewear industry for quite a while already because it produces huge quantities without real value added. Producing eyewear by 3D printing made perfect sense to me: It’s not very expensive, and the results are as unique as the human face. A great thing! But one of us was skeptical at first, saying, ‘That’s nonsense, Szabo, it’s never gonna happen!’ Two years later, another market player launched 3D-printed eyewear that was not custom-made, though. Then the skeptic among us reconsidered and said, ‘Okay, maybe it does make sense.’ Finally, when they came out with 3D scanners for iPads, with which a customer’s face can be measured super easily, that was the final green light. We did some calculations and just risked it.”
As far as I know, the initial phase was pretty wild? “Yes, and the company was still a pretty diffuse structure. Nevertheless, we simply registered a start-up booth at the largest German eyewear trade fair. That was in early January, a few days before the fair. Everyone had just come back from the Christmas holidays, one of us was still in India, and we had no product, no website, no marketing material, nothing. We ordered samples in six designs, but they hadn’t arrived yet. We had ordered hinges, and they weren’t there yet, either. Our app wasn’t ready yet. So we created a few flyers overnight and made a rudimentary website. Some samples came in just before the trade fair, but a couple of them were broken. We didn’t get the hinges before it was over. Besides, we still had not set any prices. Everything was close to chaos. So we sat down and said to ourselves: Okay, screw it, let’s do it. We’ll do it now! We just go and do our best.”
So everyone remembered their doer’s skills and rolled up their sleeves? “Exactly! We put everything in my little car, drove to the fair, and on the way there we thought about what we should do now. I said to myself: Okay, you’ve studied incentive theories; we somehow have to turn the glasses into a rare product. We don’t have any sales personnel, therefore the opticians will have to buy the glasses right at the fair and cannot expect a sales representative to come by later. We then put together three limited packages, each with a discount otherwise not available in the eyewear industry. Theoretically it could work. But did we dare to pull it off? Well, we finally dared it, and what happened then at the fair was totally crazy. After all, people could tell that we were unable to present a solid product. And our app still didn’t work; it had a bug in it that prevented it from starting.”
“Awesome what you can do if you have the right team, if you have passion and if you don’t give up even under the most difficult conditions but just go and do it.”
How did Daniel and his friends deal with the situation? “We were selling them as if our lives depended on it! Personal selling, face to face. We hit on everyone who was walking by our booth. You usually don’t that in this industry. When the question of prices came up, we explained the strictly limited packages. And then things started to rock: Everybody at the trade fair quickly started to talk about YOU MAWO. After a few hours, our booth was packed.
On that first day, we sold glasses for 30,000 euros. After we had invested only 5,000 euros so far. It went on like that for the next few days. Without having a presentable product! On the last day we had to stop because we knew we wouldn’t get enough hinges that fast. We were sold out! At the end of the trade fair, we took a deep breath, looked at each other and said, ‘Awesome what you can do if you have the right team, if you have passion and if you don’t give up even under the most difficult conditions but just go and do it.’”
As far as I know, the company name YOU MAWO stands for “Your Magic World” – and this story about its founding actually has something magical about it. Especially if you consider that it took them just over three years from this impromptu fair trade appearance to become the world market leader. And no borrowed capital of even one single euro was needed for this growth. If you take a closer look, however, this wasn’t magic at all but rather the exact combination of vision, positive spirit, and power to implement a goal, which is what this chapter is all about. Daniel, who has two business degrees and is a digital strategist, knew exactly when he had to roll up his sleeves, courageously become active and deliver results. I would like to know from Daniel how this mental strength can be transferred to people in larger companies. What is Daniel’s advice for the Head of Epic Stuff?
“I’ll start with what’s been a trait I’ve had all my life and which I think has been a crucial factor for my success,” Daniel says. “I have this can-do mentality and I approach issues without any bias, even in large companies. I look at how things hang together and then ask myself: Okay, what can you do here? I like to take a greenfield approach and wonder what it would ideally look like. And then I say to myself: Let’s just do it exactly like that! Even when there is no green field and despite all sorts of supposed hurdles. It’s important not to be afraid of failure. My motto is: Get shit done. I imagine what it would all look like in a perfect world; then I just approach it hands-on. I’m also never afraid of doing my own thing. I like being creative and different from the norm. Particularly at the beginning of my career I met with resistance for that reason. In the end, however, I was always able to turn everything into something positive because I stuck to it. You also shouldn’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. So just ask, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ – even if everybody else thinks that it won’t work that way. And then it’s time to start! After I had just joined the corporation, I was involved in a hara-kiri project and was kicked out of the room because I had made an unusual suggestion. The gist was: ‘The kid hasn’t understood anything yet; he doesn’t know how things work here.’ Only when everything was about to fail did my bosses remember my suggestion and tried in an act of despair what I had proposed. The fact that it worked helped me a lot later, of course.”
In organizations, it is quickly assumed that someone just wants to make their mark. “Exactly. That’s why I always show that I’m interested in the matter. That I want to advance processes and create added value. I really do. So it’s not making my mark when I say, ‘Look, I sat down and prepared a proposal. Couldn’t we do it this way?’ I always care about the matter in hand.” There are people in management who like to let others do the work and prefer to just watch. Daniel is highly intrinsically motivated and gets a lot done by himself. But how does he manage to have dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of employees in a corporation follow a vision and ultimately deliver it, too?
“I let others have the same liberties I take,” Daniel explains. “Everyone may ask stupid questions. Everyone may question standards. And make mistakes. That’s the precondition.”
“I let others have the same liberties I take,” Daniel explains. “Everyone may ask stupid questions. Everyone may question standards. And make mistakes. That’s the precondition. Moreover, I always meet people at eye level. I treat a lab assistant no differently from a board member. In concrete terms, everyone may know more about something than me. And everyone may also raise their hands and say, ‘I’d like to do that my own way.’ Next point: I make my visions and my enthusiasm absolutely transparent. I explain my ideas and why I think they work. I’m always empowering others as well. I say: I don’t know more than you do; we’re in this together. If I’m your boss, then my job is to keep your back free and shield you from flying shit. And your job is to keep things running in day-to-day operations. If it doesn’t work, I won’t blame you for it. Instead I’ll put on gloves and rubber boots and jump into the muck heap with you, and together we’ll shovel it away.”
In my opinion, a head of epic stuff is exactly what Daniel has just described. If employees know that their leader has this attitude, if they get that much empowerment and trust, it will motivate them endlessly to work really hard to reach the big goal. It ensures that the implementation will succeed and the goal will become reality. Finally, I want to ask Daniel if there is anything else he wants to share. “Yes,” he answers, “I just like people very much. I’m always interested in the person behind the professional. I like to talk about personal things and ask personal questions. Even if that’s unusual in a corporate culture. Once I asked a board member, ‘What are you doing on the weekend?’ And he said, surprised, ‘What do you mean?’ After a while, we started talking about hobbies and interests. This is something where I’m persistent, too. By now, people are opening up more and more everywhere, and that’s a good thing.”
About the book
This interview is an excerpt from the book „DO EPIC STUFF! – Leadership after Change Management”, published by Campus Verlag. Transformation expert René Esteban explains together with senior leaders of today’s business world how to achieve challenging goals together. Learn more about the book and order it directly.
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH. With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.